(Footwear News, September 2005)
Knights of Fortune by Design
Track: Retail Profile
Address: Trippen Flagship, Hackesche Hoefe, Hof 4 & 6, Rosenthaler Strasse 40/41, 10178 Berlin
Area: 190 square meters
Owner: Michael Oehler, Angela Spieth
"Is this a store," the young woman asks? The unusual exhibition with just a few single shoes on the floor leaves her puzzled. No signs of sizes or prices - call this style of store interior minimalist or product-focused, but it sure is extraordinary. White shelves are built into swinging white walls and show single shoes. The relief of the small handmade terracotta tiles on the floor pictures the first collection of the company. To play it safe, Trippen's founder and owner Michael Oehler is quick in assuring the confused customer: "Of course, just come in and have a look around!"
His products breathe the same individual spirit as the interior design - no wonder, since he takes care of everything himself, with co-founder Angela Spieth. In 1991, they started with wood shoes bringing together old fashion handcrafted techniques with modern design. "We went for wood shoes, because they are the easiest in terms of expenditure of production and design options," Oehler explains. Now Trippen has around 80 different models on 17 different soles. Virgin wood from European alder, beech, and poplar timber are moulded and combined with leather. In 1995, the portfolio extended to leather shoes, often with removable rubber soles. Design priority is the anatomy of the foot and functionality. This makes for unconventional forms allowing toe-friendly comfort. "We always use natural surfaces and interpret fashion trends in our own special way," he says. With great success: Trippen has won seven international design awards over the past years. Three prizes were awarded for innovation in alternative methods of creating shoes through cutting techniques. At the same time, the firm emphasizes that its production methods are as environmentally friendly and socially responsible as possible.
Located in one of the key addresses for tourists, the fancy Hackesche Hoefe (courtyards) in downtown and former East Berlin, Trippen's flagship store has become part of an upcoming and trendy fashion quarter with many designer stores. The shop opened in 1995 when loads of culture-sensitive visitors flocked to town to see the Reichstag wrapped up by Christo. "The Hoefe were open at night and people bought our shoes like crazy. But once the Reichstag happening was over, we hardly sold anything anymore for two years," Oehler remembers. "Whoever entered our shop was talked into buying so intensively that he didn't dare leaving the store without purchasing something. That was the time when we really learnt how to sell." Now he finds the location wonderful, since it attracts individualist types of tourists. 80 percent of customers are fashion-oriented women, mostly between 35 and 55 years old. One of them is Angela Merkel, possibly Germany's next chancellor.
Whereas the flagship store carries the full assortment, Trippen's gallery, which is located in Berlin's new fashion quarter as well, focuses on new leather collections and draws a younger crowd. "Students also buy our shoes. They either save money or come with their parents," he says. They have to: prices range from 200 to 300 Euros per pair. "This is still half the price of designer shoes, because we don't advertise and therefore save 30 percent," he explains.
Yet another Berlin store in the trendy and artsy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood populated by a lot of families offers a children's collection. Besides these three shops in Berlin, Trippen sells in Hamburg, Taiwan, and Japan, because some models go well with Japanese designer clothes. Not every expansion plan has worked out: the London store had to be closed. The unique footwear needs to be explained to the customer and sometimes Trippen couldn't find salespeople who were up to this task. Still, 80 percent of the 10-million-Euro in sales come from abroad, with only 2 percent from the US. "We could be stronger in a lot of places, if we just had the capacity to take care of them. We want to grow gradually. Maybe we find somebody who fits in with us." The challenge for a potential partner is that nothing is standardized and the whole business is modelled around the unique design. The two founders develop with 3-D-prototypes, a technique mastered by only few designers. The business concept is completely stylised throughout. So people from the traditional mass shoe business don't fit to Trippen, Oehler and Spieth found out. "Our philosophy is: we are busy and stubborn knights of fortune," Oehler laughs.
And the knights are truly fortunate: they earn ten percent before tax and enjoy a remarkable sales growth of 15 to 20 percent per year. Trippen has hired over 100 employees including many students and makes far more than 100,000 pairs per year in nine collections for summer and winter. However, Oehler emphasizes: "If I really wanted to make money, I would do a lot of things differently. But I'm satisfied." Among the features of Trippen's business is the "rough customer service", he admits. Customers need to wait four to six weeks for their orders. A lot of Germans didn't accept this. On the other hand, one can order any Trippen model ever made. There is a maximum of 2000 pieces per model and a minimum of only eight. Production facilities are in nearby Brandenburg and in Italian family-owned factories.
Not surprisingly, the unusual company looks back on an eventful 14-year history that is far from normal. After ten years as a highly-paid shoemaker for west Berlin's theaters, Oehler needed to reorient himself after the fall of the wall. In 1991, he teamed up with Angela Spieth, a shoe designer, who made the experience in ten years of freelancing that she couldn't realize her great ideas in the mass market. "So I could catch her," he smiles. "I'm the visionary, she cares about reality now." In the years thereafter, they often even occupied factories to make sure that their ideas are carried out. At times, they produced wooden shoes with 30 students. When their footwear didn't sell well in Italy, Oehler took the decision to stay or leave the market by flipping a coin. Eagle and not number was on top of the coin. So he gave up on selling in Italy. Ever since Trippen's numbers have been top. His dream for the future is completely focusing on design, and leaving the business stuff to somebody else. If he found an alter ego, yet another vision of his could become true.